Jon Bon Jovi's latest creation, The Circle, is a deluxe package of a CD and a documentary DVD that brings us up to date with the Jersey legend. A much ballyhooed return to Rock (following the band's Country music excursion Lost Highway) finds Bon Jovi firmly back in the middle of the road pop rock pocket. It is consistently good, successfully taking bits from music's past (both his own and others) to take listeners on a pleasantly energized yet safe ride. Sort of like one of those virtual reality roller coasters where the vehicle moves up and down on hydraulics and a video screen makes it feel like you're really moving when in reality you're not. Is this a good or bad thing? For me, I like it though as with many long time fans it's another nail in the coffin of hope that they will return to their glitzy pop metal of old.
So now that I've criticized the album for what it's not, let's take a look at what it is. The "Born To Be My Baby" rewrite "We Weren't Born To Follow" is pretty good and while JBJ takes shots for cliched lyrics I have to admit to find this song inspiring. This song has been motivational to me, released at a time of personal upheaval the words "We weren't born to follow / c'mon get up off your knees / life is a bitter pill to swallow / you gotta hold on to what you believe" wrapped up in a familiar catchy melody worked wonders. Musically my mind screams "Rip off!" but in my soul it's one of his most meaningful songs for me. And it's that conflict that colors my view of the whole project.
Still an Arena rock band at heart, the rest of the album features rushing rockers (the Creed like "Bullet", or "Brokenpromiseland") and ballads (the Tim McGrawish "Live Like You Were Dying") as we've come to expect from the long running band. The choruses are designed to elicit 20,000 audience members to shout "Hey, hey, hey!" or "Yeah, yeah yeah!" in unison when performed live. Even the epic atmospheric ballad "When We Were Beautiful" has this type of chorus. A little bit of a Coldplay influence takes hold towards the end of the disc ("Fast Cars") with glowing keyboards. The highpoint of the album is in the first four songs with "We Weren't Born To Follow", "When We Were Beautiful", the "Living On A Prayer" styled "Work For The Workingman" and the U2 "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" rewrite "Superman Tonight".
Despite being derivative Bon Jovi is still a popular band as The Circle went to #1 on the album charts and being a fan I'm not complaining. Their ability to take familiar themes and adapt them to the modern market is Jon Bon Jovi's chief talent as The Circle places its weight behind the national mood of overcoming disillusionment. This talent is what gets the focus in an accompanying DVD When We Were Beautiful and answers once and for all my question: How does an 80's hair band whose last major hit song was 9 years ago stay at the top of the charts?
This glossy documentary shot in black and white includes interviews with all four members of the band as they wax on about what has brought them to this stage of their career. JBJ says repeatedly that they aren't supposed to be here, not supposed to be this successful at this point. And he's right, most of the groups that were their peers are playing county fairs or small clubs while Bon Jovi can play arenas like Madison Square Garden. The reason is Jon Bon Jovi's vision, making himself and his band as marketable as possible at any given moment. If the market suddenly shifted to a jazz revival, Bon Jovi's next album would add a horn section and rewrite Cannonball Adderley songs. His ambition is the main priority, the music's artistic value is determined by audience response over personal expression. The band is in this whole hog, all members in separate interviews refer to Bon Jovi as an "organization" rather than a band.
And it's real impressive to see the kingdom Jon Bon Jovi has created, essentially a self made CEO of a corporation that owns sports teams, does charitable works and provides a public service. That's also why the documentary is boring, it's really a corporate promotional video. Ironically, it's this format that may be the most honest representation of Bon Jovi artistically. I know I listen to Bon Jovi because epic rock anthems with fast guitars and banal lyrics hit me where I live, but maybe another reason for his success is ultimately he represents the current version of the American Dream. Capitalism that is as jaded as it is heartfelt, the captain of the football team that became a captain of industry. The rebel with a stock portfolio. OK I'm running out of cheesy metaphors now, I'm no Jon Bon Jovi I can't make you buy this stuff. But he can.
We may never really know Jon Bon Jovi in the artistic sense, he will always say and be how we want him to be. There may be bits of honest emotion mixed in here or there ("Wanted Dead Or Alive" for one) but I seriously doubt we'll get a Blood On The Tracks moment from the guy. I guess what's interesting to me is that I actually care about the artistic motives of Bon Jovi, maybe being a fan all these years I'm waiting for a Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in their music. Wow, this blog post is sure a long way to say what I just said in one sentence. Oh well, don't feel like deleting stuff now.
So here's to you Bon Jovi, a hook, an image and a 401k - the ultimate winner. Now go record a folk album!